Paris’ Le Meurice is one of the city’s most luxurious addresses—and that goes for the hotel’s 228 Bar as well. Sicilian-born William Oliveri has worked there since 1978: His charismatic demeanor and lilting accent have made William, now head bartender, the true face of the establishment.
We sat down to talk with William about some of the famous patrons that have passed through the lavish locale over the past four decades—and to uncover their drinks of choice.
Hi, William. Did you always know you wanted to be a bartender?
William Oliveri: When I was young, I wanted to be a missionary. I studied with the Jesuits. Then when I was 18, I left the seminary… Of course, today, that’s all a bit obsolete, now.
So how did you end up working as a bartender?
I was the oldest son in a family of three children, and my father was a mason, so he wasn’t working all the time—we weren’t swimming in gold—so I had to start working. If I’d wanted to go back to school, I would have had to take integration exams. So since I didn’t want to waste time, and since it was expensive, what better than to do a professional training course and start working right away, at 18?
What did your family think of that?
At the time, for my father, being Sicilian, the idea of the oldest son—the first-born son!—wanting to be a “server” was not dignified. He didn’t understand the hospitality industry. But my mother, like all good moms, she talked to him, and finally, he accepted it. And he said, “Listen, if you want to do this, do it, but whatever you do with your life, do it well. Even if you’re a bandit, do it with dignity.”
How did you end up in Paris?
I was working all over the place, in England, in Germany, in Florence. But I was working seasonally, four months here, six months there… because I didn’t think it was useful, at my age, to stop somewhere. I thought I had to go fast so that I could go everywhere, so that I could learn.
So I went to Germany for the -nth time, and I worked three years in Dusseldorf, at the Steigenberger Park Hotel, a beautiful hotel in Germany. And when I was done, I said to myself, well, I’ll go home to Italy, to Florence, with my young fiancée…
But then I thought, well, I spoke French, because I had learned French at school: in Italy, the foreign language was French, because at the time, we thought that French was more respectable than English, even though English was more useful.
And so I said to myself, I’ll go do a stint in France, because to work in Italian hotels, that’s obligatory. France is the country of gastronomy.
Even for Italians?
Yes! Food, wine, cheese… wine above all. We have some great wines in Italy; I wave the flag of Italian wines high. But you know, in the 70s, and even today, when you talk about gastronomy, you’re talking about France, automatically. You can’t even say that France is the nation of gastronomy; gastronomy is France.
So you came to the Meurice?
Yes, in 1978. There was a boy I had worked with in Germany, and he told me there was a space open for a bartender at the Meurice. And I said I was interested. I had worked in dining rooms, but in bars, too. So I applied, I introduced myself to the head bartender at the time, who had been there since 1951—which is the year in which I was born—and we did a little interview in English, French, German, Spanish… Finally, he said, “I’m not going to say I’ll call you, or for you to come back. You’re hired. How long are you going to stay with us?” And I said, “Listen, I’d like to do six months.”
In reality, I was thinking two or three, but I said six. It seemed to me to be an honest proposition. And he laughed, and he said, “That wasn’t the right answer.”
He said, “Listen—know this. At the Meurice, we all know when we arrive, but we never know when we’ll leave. I showed up in ‘51 to replace someone for a few days, and I’m still here.” And of course, he was right, because I’m still here. My six months are up.
Did you like bartending better than other hospitality positions?
I’m a verbal man, a man of communication. I need to be able to talk to people. For me, I often find that in the bar, service is more personalized. In the restaurant, you have canons of service that must be respected. There’s not so much contact with the clients. But at the bar, you can invent things. You can customize your service. And that’s what’s so lovely about it.
How do you get inspired to create a new cocktail?
When you create a cocktail, you base it on the tastes of the person, on their eyes. If it’s a beautiful woman, maybe on the dress she’s wearing. If it’s a young lady or an older lady… In French, we say le cocktail—masculine, but I would have feminized it, because a cocktail is like a woman: It’s lovely to look at… and like a woman, it can make your head spin if you have too much.
What’s one of your favorite creations?
In ‘79, I was behind my counter, and two young people came in, 18 or 17. Young, but very posh. They used the formal vous with one another; you never see that anymore.
But I could see that it was the first time that the young man had taken her out, it was the first time they had been to a real bar. And they didn’t know what to do. And I took the bull by the horns, and I said, “OK, I’m going to make you something. What do you like? Rum? OK, here we go.”
So I made a cocktail in a big bowl: rum, a bit of coconut, Cointreau, lemon, a bit of grenadine—for a bit of a carnal color. And two straws. And I called it Cheek-to-Cheek, because to drink it, they had to touch each other. The ice was broken. And those two people came back again, and I made them the same thing, and then they came back a few months later to celebrate that they had officially gotten engaged.
That cocktail is still on my menu. I don’t call it Cheek-to-Cheek anymore, because I make it for just one person. I call it Plaisir d’Amour—”Pleasure of Love.”
Who are some of the most famous clients you’ve seen come through the bar?
All of the royal families have come through the Meurice. We’ve seen everyone. All of the kings and queens, except the Queen of England, but the others: the King of Sweden, the entire Swedish royal family, the King of Spain—Alfonso XIII of Spain was right at home here, of course. And naturally, the famous [Salvador] Dali, who was a royalist. He, of course, wanted to have Alfonso XIII’s room.
Did you ever create a cocktail for him?
Dali never drank alcohol. He only came down to the bar when the Count of Barcelona was here—the son of Alfonso XIII and Juan-Carlos’ dad. But I wanted to make a drink inspired by Dali, and so I made the Gala and Dali, because Gala, who was his wife, as opposed to him, did drink a bit. So what he liked were strawberries; we made him fresh strawberries which he ate with sugar, or he drank herbal tea. So what I decided to make was a little cocktail with strawberry and vodka, and I called it the Gala and Dali.
Have you ever made drinks for movie stars?
Once, Sophia Loren came in—I made her a Bellini. She was angry. She was filming here with Mastroianni, and she got very angry very quickly, and she said, “Bartender, make me something fast! A Bellini! A Bellini!”
[He mimes slurping.]
“Ah… that has reconciled me with the world.”
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the time you’ve been working here?
Clients knew how to hold themselves, before. They had class. They knew how to live. Today, a bit less.
I remember once, there was a client from a big Austro-Hungarian family—he stayed [at the hotel] for two or three months. And one night he said to me, “William, I’ve got four friends coming. We’re going to sit at a little table in the corner. And I want you to pour a bottle of Cristal into a pitcher, and serve it to me with four little glasses. Not Champagne flutes, just little glasses.” And he looked at his friends, saying, “So, what do you think of my little white wine?” And he’d look at me with this air of complicity—he loved pranks like that. He was the kind of person who’d put a blank check on the counter and tell me, “Fill it out at the end.”
At the time, people would come in at 11, knowing we closed at midnight, and say, “Bartender, do you think we could have a drink before going to bed?” Today, at 3 in the morning, the bar is closed, the curtain is drawn, and the bartender is in his shirtsleeves cleaning up, and someone will come in, sit down, and we’ll say, “Sorry, we’re closed…” And they’ll moan and complain, “But we’re here for Champagne!”
What’s the role of the bartender, in your opinion?
The bartender is his own person. He’s not the maître d’hôtel, he’s not the chef, he’s not the concierge or the pastry chef. The bartender, for me, is the man of the hotel. Because what’s the bar? It’s the place where everyone meets!
When we opened the hotel, I said, I want the bar here, right in the middle, right next to the elevators, near the entrance, because I want people passing in front of the bar when they come home for the evening. It’s strategic, yes, but at the same time, I think the bar needs to be the soul of the hotel. This is where everything happens. And the bartender: He’s the lord of the hotel, he’s the lord of the town, everyone knows him. You don’t go to the bar to have a drink—you go to see Nino or Pierrot or Jean or William.
What's your drink?
Perfect. Thanks for speaking with us.